Global Histories of Neoliberalism: An Interview with Quinn Slobodian

Liat Spiro recently sat down with Quinn Slobodian in Cambridge, MA to discuss his new book, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press, 2018).

Slobodian, associate professor of history at Wellesley College and currently ACLS Burkhardt Fellow at the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History at Harvard University, revealed how neoliberal thinkers developed a vision of global free trade in goods and capital, though not necessarily people, during the crises of the 1930s and the era of decolonization. In Globalists, he argues that neoliberal thinkers did not oppose the state and prize individualism, but rather sought to use rules to encase the market away from democratic governance.

The discussion also presented a chance to explore neoliberals’ interpretations of the nexus between law and economics as well as current debates over the significance of racism to neoliberal thought. Slobodian explained the role of Central Europe in the global history of neoliberalism and the legacy of the Habsburg Empire for neoliberals’ understanding of political economy. Slobodian addressed the critical conflation of neoliberalism, economism, and pretensions to all-knowability in the recent historiography of the “invention of the economy.”

Over the course of this conversation about economists’ and historians’ “trust in numbers,” or lack thereof, Slobodian proposed reviving leftist and heterodox economics. Looking ahead, he presented steps for writing global histories of neoliberalism beyond Globalists, tracing the unpredictable, highly transnational, and strongly contested circuits through which economic concepts get taken up into policymaking.

The interview is illustrated by stills from The Walls of the WTO, a collaborative film project by Slobodian and the filmmaker Ryan S. Jeffery. The film will appear in the exhibition Say Shibboleth! On Visible and Invisible Borders, opening at the Jewish Museum Hohenems in April 2018.

Liat Spiro (Harvard University)

CFP: Business History on Commodity Trading Companies in the First Global Economy, 1870-1929 (Norwegian University, Norway)

For those interested in the global economy, this recent call for paper is for you! The editors, Marten Boon and Espen Storli from Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim invite article submissions for “a special issue on commodity trading companies in the first global economy” titled “Business History on Commodity Trading Companies in the…

Soviet Socialism with Chinese Characterisics? Understanding the Collapse of the Soviet Economy with Christopher Miller

Comparing the shifting fortunes of Russia and China over the last fifty years, one cannot but be struck by the dramatic reversal in the two countries’ fates. In 1967, the Soviet Union was in the midst of a massive military buildup that would eventually enable it to reach superiority in conventional arms and parity in nuclear arms with the United States. The Prague Spring was a year away, and in spite of earlier interventions in Hungary, socialism in the Eastern Bloc enjoyed prestige among intellectuals in the West. The Soviet economy grew at a respectable five percent annually or so. China, meanwhile, was still reeling from the effects of the Great Leap Forward when, in 1966, Mao Zedong plunged the country into the Cultural Revolution. Millions of people were persecuted, and China’s leadership nearly triggered a war with the USSR following clashes over islands in Northeast Eurasia.

Today, the two countries present quite a different story. True, since Vladimir Putin was named, then elected, President in 2000, Russia’s economy year after year until the global recession of 2008-09. And having prevented the collapse of a Middle Eastern client in Syria, not to mention Russian influence in European and American elections, Putin can present himself as a confident paladin of Russian power in the world. Yet these triumphs were built only upon the ruins of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in December 1991. And Russia today has to deal not only with the United States, but also a rising People’s Republic of China whose economy is nearly an order of magnitude larger than Russia’s. Even on a per-capita-basis, Russians are only approximately 10% wealthier than their Chinese counterparts.

Reviewing this reversal, those contemplating the decline (and subsequent revival) of Russian state power might point to 1989 as the crucial turning point. In the summer of that year, the PRC’s government imposed martial law as student protesters swarmed Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party declared the protests “counter-revolutionary” and launched a massive crackdown that resulted in perhaps thousands of deaths. Communist Party control over China—albeit now promoting “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—remained intact, as it does today.

In Eastern Europe, however, the Soviet General Secretary’s refusal to use Soviet military force to put down mass protests in Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and elsewhere led to the collapse of satellite regimes won at the cost of 26,000,000 lives. And whereas Chinese economic reforms strengthened the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party, soon, in the Soviet Union itself, Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic reforms contributed to the centrifugal dissolution of the world’s largest land country into fifteen successor states.

“The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR” (UNC Press, 2016)

Could things have gone differently? Could the Soviets have reformed their economy into something along the lines of the Chinese success story? Could there have been a Soviet Tiananmen Square scenario that would have prevented Boris Yeltsin from coming to power, and thus averted what Vladimir Putin dubs the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”? It’s a huge question—and also one that our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Christopher Miller (the Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale) takes on in his recent book The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

Using sources in Russian and Chinese and exploiting underutilized Soviet archives, Miller’s work challenges the conventional wisdom about the great Soviet-Chinese counterfactual. Far from ignorant of Deng Xiaoping’s reinvention of Chinese socialism, Mikhail Gorbachev and the advisors around him were well aware of how the Chinese were transforming their economy. While some criticized the Chinese for abandoning socialism altogether, Gorbachev and his team consciously sought to imitiate Chinese reforms throughout the 1980s. It wasn’t for a lack of awareness or effort that would-be Soviet reformers failed to match Deng Xiaoping’s results. Rather, Miller suggests, the answer to the failure of Soviet economic reforms lies in the political economy of interest groups in the late Soviet Union. Indeed, it was precisely because large lobbies in the military, the oil and gas industry, and collective farms refused reforms that a Soviet Tiananmen would have been impossible in content if not in form. Even had the coup planners who briefly seized power from Gorbachev in August 1991, there was no way they could have imposed the austerity measures on Russians that Deng imposed on Chinese, for such cuts would have meant cutting into their own bloated budgets.

In short, Miller’s work offers not only a tight empirical reconstruction of key events in the history of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, but also offers a new vista on the political economy of Russia and China as they emerged from that annus horribilus (for the regimes, if not tens of millions of Europeans) of 1989. In order to discuss some of the issues raised by The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan recently sat down with Dr. Miller to discuss his road to writing the book, some of the results of his research, as well as his ongoing research agenda.…

CFC: Postcolonial Economies: Genealogies of Capital and the Colonial Encounter (edited collection, Sept 30, 2017)

For scholars working on the global history of capital and colonialism, with a particular interest in the question of reparations and broader economic-historical questions, here is a for contributions to what sounds like a fascinating edited collection:   Regarding an ongoing research project at Columbia University, Barnard student Sabrina Singer reflected that when she walks…

The Great Divergence and the Marketplace of Ideas: Joel Mokyr’s “Culture of Growth”

The Economist has recently published a review of Joel Mokyr‘s new book, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy – a new contribution to the debate over “the great divergence” between the European and Asian economies, and how Europe’s wealth and power began to overshadow India’s and China’s by the nineteenth century. Mokyr,…

CFP: “The Economic Impact of the Portuguese Expansion in Europe (14th-17th centuries)” (Lisboa, Portugal, November 24-26, 2016)

If you’re interested in the global history of economic, here’s a recent call for applications that will surely be of interest. The Portuguese Center for Global History (CHAM) , has organized a conference entitled “The Economic Impact of the Portuguese Expansion in Europe (14th-17th centuries)” will be taking place at Lisbon on November 24-26, 2016.…

Harvard Graduate Student Conference on International History (CON-IH)

Fresh off our recent announcement about Tufts University’s upcoming graduate student international and global history conference, we’re pleased to post another recent call for papers from one of the other international history centers in the Boston area, namely the Harvard Graduate Student Conference on International History (Con-IH 16), slated to take place on March 10-11,…

Sandalwood Commonwealth? Traveling Across a Chinese-Australian Pacific with Sophie Loy-Wilson

Scan the news these days for news from the western and southern Pacific, and it doesn’t require too much reading for the outlines of a multipolar future to emerge. There are, of course, the obvious stories: competition between the United States and China; that relationship’s reverberating effect on the Korea-Japan-China triangle; and the effect of a dynamic and rising Vietnam and Indonesia on what is likely to be the main engine of global economic growth in years to come. Sometimes obscured through a focus on the areas of Northeast and Southeast Asia, however, can be the important role that Australia plays in the broader region. While party to numerous strategic agreements with other Commonwealth countries and the United States, the world’s twelfth largest economy plays a role as a key trading partner for China. Indeed, one of the major ongoing debates within Australian politics is how this former Dominion, so far from “old” British and former Imperial markets and so close to a region with a near-unlimited appetite for raw materials (plenty of those in Australia’s arid interior) should balance between the Angloworld and the East, China in particular.

Such debates about Australia’s economic, political, and to some extent cultural orientation have, of course, not only a history of their own but are themselves influenced by the work of journalist, scholars and activists on the meaning of Australia’s place in the world. And it’s precisely because of her contribution to these debates that the Toynbee Prize Foundation sat down recently with Dr. Sophie Loy-Wilson, a member of the Laureate Research Program in International History at the University of Sydney.

Sophie Loy-Wilson (Sydney), our guest to this most recent installment of the Global History Forum

Refreshingly for a country whose political culture can sometimes play up images of Australia’s aloofness from a wider Oceanic and Asian world, Loy-Wilson seeks to unearth the often obscure history of Chinese-Australian relations from the nineteenth century to the present day. Using Chinese, Australian, and British sources, her work locates business history and cultural history in a transnational context to examine the web of exchange and ideas about the other in which Chinese-Australian relations have formed for nearly two centuries. Such a package of skills and interests is no doubt likely to make hers a voice to watch from Beijing to Canberra for years to come. It also made for a stimulating conversation as we sat down with her recently to discuss her intellectual formation and her ongoing scholarly work.…

Peace Without Victory: Adam Tooze on “The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order 1916-1931”

In case you haven’t noticed, this year marks the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Visit a bookstore, and you’re likely to be greeted at the entrance by scores of books devoted to explaining how the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand sparked a European conflagration. Search beyond the piles at the front of the store, and, if you’re lucky, you may even find books that explore the war outside of its European context.

But in a year full of books devoted to the centenary of the war, few works have been so eagerly anticipated as that of historian Adam Tooze, whose The Deluge: The Great War, America, and the Remaking of the Global Order 1916-1931 has recently appeared on bookshelves on both sides of the Atlantic. Tooze has long been well-known to specialists on European economic and intellectual history since his earlier work on statistics and state-making in Germany. To more general readers, however, he may be better known for his 2008 The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, which secured his reputation as one of the leading historians of German and European history writing today.

Cover image of Adam Tooze's new book, "The Deluge"

Cover image of Adam Tooze’s new book, “The Deluge”

Economic history may have a reputation as dusty, dry, and, well, boring in some quarters today. But in Wages, Tooze showed how an economic history perspective was crucial to understanding Nazi grand strategy and even the origins of the Holocaust itself. More than that, Wages relocated the pivotal place of the United States in the worldview of Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazi figures. As the United States emerged as a qualitatively new force in global affairs, anyone seeking to shape the global order had to draw lessons from the new colossus. Figures like Hitler recognized that “American economic might would be the decisive factor in the shaping of the world order.” More than that, the American challenge was a new political and economic formation on a new scale, “a consolidated federal republic of continental scale, a super-sized nation state” that, thanks to its might and geography, “had a unique claim and capacity to exert global influence.”

The American entrance into European and global affairs really took on full shape concomitant to the First World War–an insight that drives much of The Deluge, and which explains its temporal framing. 1916 was the year when American economic output exceeded that of the British Empire, 1931 the year of Herbert Hoover’s moratorium on war debts. As commentators today question whether we might be entering a “post-American century,” understanding how the American giant burst onto the global scene in the first place is all the more urgent. The Toynbee Prize Foundation had the opportunity to sit down with Tooze recently to discuss his path to history, the book, and his future projects for this installment of Global History Forum.